After-dinner cocktails continue to offer a sweet end to an evening

Wrapping up the night with an after-dinner tipple is an age-old custom and Wisconsinites love indulgent nightcaps.
pink squirrel on the bar
Photo courtesy of Food Fight Restaurant Group/Chris Hynes Photography
Pink Squirrel from Avenue Club and the Bubble-Up Bar

Wrapping up the night with an after-dinner tipple is an age-old custom. Europeans have long appreciated digestifs: postprandial alcoholic beverages thought to aid digestion. They include the likes of cognac, bitter herbal liqueurs and fortified wines such as sherry and port. Anyone who has ever watched “Downton Abbey” knows civilized people top off the evening with a hearty belt of whisky. Well into the 19th century in the U.S., the favored after-dinner drinks were cordials — heavily sweetened, fruit-flavored brandies or spirits. As cocktails and supper clubs gained prominence after World War II, creamy concoctions revolutionized the nightcap. Probably most beloved (at least in Wisconsin) are the grasshopper, brandy Alexander and pink squirrel.

The grasshopper can trace its roots back to New Orleans’ second-oldest eatery, Tujague’s. According to the restaurant, owner Philibert Guichet created the bright-green libation around 1918 and entered it in a New York City cocktail contest, where it won second place. The original recipe called for equal parts crème de menthe, crème de cacao and cream, but proportions have changed over time. Benedetti’s Supper Club in Beloit creates what may be the ultimate rendition — it’s 2 feet tall and contains three-fourths of a gallon of ice cream.

The brandy Alexander’s ancestor was the Alexander, a gin-based cocktail, devised early in the 20th century at Rector’s, a posh New York restaurant. Rector’s bartender, Troy Alexander, created the silky smooth mixture of English gin, crème de cacao and cream. Shaken over ice, it’s served in a champagne coupe garnished with a sprinkle of nutmeg. Eventually, someone decided to swap out the gin with cognac and the drink became known as the Alexander No. 2, or the brandy Alexander. For a real sip of nostalgia, you can savor this seductive blonde classic at Smoky’s Club where it’s been a house specialty for 67 years.

A clever Milwaukee bar owner, Bryant Sharp, gets credit for concocting the pink squirrel at Bryant’s Cocktail Lounge. It was a variation of the brandy Alexander, but with crème de noyaux (an almond-flavored liqueur) instead of brandy. Once all the rage with our parents and grandparents, its popularity has plummeted, in part due to a scarcity of crème de noyaux in stores. Fear not! One can still sample this surprisingly delicious curiosity at the Avenue Club and the Bubble Up Bar.

More recently, ice cream has replaced cream as the main ingredient in these drinks, thanks to the invention of the blender in Wisconsin. The first milkshake machine to be patented was a hand-powered device, the brainchild of Racine’s James Tufts, who introduced it in 1884. In 1922, Stephen Poplawski, also from Racine, came up with an electric model. A few years later, Racine entrepreneur Frederick Osius acquired Polawski’s patent and began manufacturing his Cyclone Drink Mixer. He named his company after two employees, Louis Hamilton and Chester Beach.

I’m not sure any of these grown-up milkshakes will help with digestion, but as the Eurythmics sang, “Sweet dreams are made of this. Who am I to disagree?”

Dan Curd has written for Madison Magazine for more than 20 years.